As much as we’d all like to spend more time at the pub, rarely would it be considered a conducive workplace. Artist Mike Wilks, however, has converted an old boozer into a practical and productive live-work space

Words: Victoria Purcell

Artist and author Mike Wilks, who recently re-released his best-selling book The Ultimate Alphabet – a magnificent compilation of illustrations that invites you to find as many items beginning with a specific letter as possible – found just the space he was looking for when he stumbled across a disused pub in Walworth.

‘I wanted lots and lots of space, lots of lots of light at a price I could afford,’ he says. The Surrey Arms, on the corner of Surrey Square, just around the corner from Burgess Park, gave him just that. Mike had lived in France for 10 years in a ‘beautiful old stone farmhouse on the side of a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean.’ Born and bred in the capital, he returned because it’s ‘a much more interesting place to live than the south of France. They have the weather, the food, the wine, they have the scenery, but it’s not as interesting as London.’

The pub was unused when Mike found it, but it still had the old bar, some of the pub furniture, even the gents’ toilets were still in place, plus an old cellar that you could only access via a trap door. It sounds like it was a heck of a fixer-upper, but ‘it was the size of the place and the amount of light that really attracted me,’ says Mike, ‘plus it’s proximity to central London. I can easily be in the West End in 20 minutes, which is really very good.’

Artist Mike Wilks

Artist Mike Wilks

The artist wanted anything that interfered with work taken out, so while the pub had plenty of character and charm, the bar furniture was sold off to an architectural salvage company. That old mahogany bar could now well be in a hipster haunt.

Mike called in local architects Timpson Manley, since disbanded, and gave them ‘carte blanche’ on the place. They dealt with all the nitty gritty like planning issues (thankfully, the pub wasn’t listed), came up with the design, stripped away walls and created his dream space – an open-plan, mezzanine-style live-work space reminiscent of a Manhattan loft.

I hate cosy. My house in France didn’t have any interior walls

Space is very much the order of the day: ‘I hate cosy,’ he says, ‘My house in France didn’t have many interior walls. I just knocked most of them out and painted everything white.’

Mike trained as a designer, so when it came to kitting out his pad, it was ‘all second nature’ to him. The L-shaped yellow sofa, the centrepiece of the reception-dining room, is by Terence Woodgate, bought at SCP in Shoreditch. There’s a very high tech-looking lamp by Richard Sapper from light specialists Artemedie, and Tom Dixon’s Jack Lights create a striking feature in a corner. The audio visual equipment is all Bang and Olufsen, the dining table is by Richard Foster and the chairs are by Charles and Ray Eames. It’s a who’s who of some of Britain’s greatest designers.


On the wall is a series of three prints, made by Mike himself: ‘I made them for that space. I needed something to go there, so I just knocked them up. They were originally photographs, then I worked on them on a computer and had then blown up and printed.’

The furnishings are carefully created and sparse, with none of those pesky knick knacks that some of us can’t help but cram onto our shelves. Would he describe his style as minimalist? ‘My style is ‘minimalish’, which means I can be untidy,’ he laughs.

My style is ‘minimalish’, which means I can be untidy

His studio is on the mezzanine level which, bafflingly, is the ground floor. It’s an enormous open space bathed in light with a huge easel, sprawling desk space full of sketches and drawers upon drawers of paints and brushes. An adjoining room houses a Mac with a huge screen, plus a few older computers scattered around that he can’t bear to part with. The opposite wall is crammed with books, floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall in a mini library of sorts, some clever bespoke cabinetry carrying them around the curve of the wall, with a natty library ladder to reach the top.

Mike won a scholarship to art school when he was 13 and went on to study at Jamie Art School in Sutton, then Burley Art School in Croydon. He graduated in graphic design and worked as a graphic designer before setting up his own business. ‘Then I got bored so I decided I was going to start writing and illustrating books, so I sold up. It took me a few years before The Ultimate Alphabet happened, then I didn’t have to think again about what I wanted to do.’


The book was originally published in 1986 and was a huge success, hanging out on The Sunday Times bestseller list for a year. It’s something of a grown-up Where’s Wally, where you turn to a beautifully illustrated picture labelled ‘P’ and try to find the pineapple, pestle and partially painted panda. Then, a couple of years ago, an American publisher who had loved the book when he was younger approached Mike about republishing it.

I wonder if he was tempted to alter the pictures in any way? Pop an iPad in there or such like? ‘No because that’s a never-ending story,’ he says. ‘Everything’s always changing, so there are things in there that are dated such as a lot of the flags – there’s no Soviet Union, no East Germany, no Yugoslavia. On the flip side, there are things now that are commonplace that were very rare in the early 1980s, like mobile telephones and computers. It would be an endless job. I’d have to update it every year.’

There was another reason to keep the The Ultimate Alphabet just as it was. ‘The original book has a nostalgia value,’ he says. ‘There are moments of “oh yeah, I remember that”. People who originally owned it had passed it on to their children, so it became a bit of an heirloom. We’re hoping it sells well again to a whole new audience.’